After The Gold Rush

What can anyone possibly learn from an ad market that stumbled out of an all-night party right into the hands of a couple of thugs who thumped it on the head, rolled it in the alley and took its wallet?

The answer is, plenty.

Sure, San Francisco acted foolishly during the dot-com era. Sure, it became the poster child for Wanton Advertising Excess. But it did not act alone. There were others. Feeding us drinks. Asking us to dance. There may have been some Spanish Fly or a Mickey involved, I’m not sure.

Nonsensical work also sprang from New York. Los Angeles. Minneapolis. And every other place work can spring from. The gerbil cannon, to be clear, came from New York. (I didn’t want to be yet another person to point fingers at my buddy Roger Camp’s spot as the prime example of dot-com tomfoolery, but damn, Rog, you did shoot a live gerbil through the “o” in Outpost.)

Our friends across the country made greedy missteps even we in San Francisco couldn’t make: They rushed in and opened offices here. (Oh, to be an Aeron chair salesman in 1998.) Arnold merged its way in. Lowe expanded. Martin hung out a fresh new shingle. Hill, Holliday had a claim. We all remember Ogilvy’s office out here, right? Burnett’s? No? Messner’s? And surely Fallon’s West Coast operation is still booming.

Then they had to staff these outposts. And what’s Rule No. 1 of creative talent? That’s right, there’s never enough to go around. San Francisco will always be home to creative thinkers. But you can’t triple the demand for creatives and expect to get Grade A clams in every sourdough bread bowl. We never got the top guy from New York. Or the still-young-but-rising star. We got the “tech-savvy” ex-brochure writer. And the pretty decent guy who wanted to live near the wine country.

Soon, the market was swollen with mercenaries thinking, “Holy shit, I can sell work I never could before, and they’ll pay me more than I ever dreamed of.” And sell they did. They sold work that made their friends laugh. They sold celebrities they wanted to hang out with. They sold potty jokes.

Which leads us to Rule No. 2: Creating breakthrough advertising ain’t easy. These imports, as well as the locals who thought they were born again, may have thought they had woken up working for Wieden, but it was painfully obvious that their business cards still said otherwise. Creating funny, relevant ads is a skill only a select group of people have. Most people in the business can’t do it. That’s a fact.

And that’s the crux of it all. People intentionally, greedily stepped outside what they do. San Francisco intentionally, greedily stepped outside what it does.

For one, it chased cash. Of course, today, that’s the M.O. for the ad monoliths across the country. That’s advertising, sure enough. But that’s not advertising in San Francisco.

And second, the thing that hurt most, was that San Francisco did creative for creative’s sake. Make no mistake, it happens in this business every day. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have that powerful marketing weapon, the horse fart. San Francisco’s sin is that it lowered itself to horse-fart standards. And that cost some people their jobs, others their ski houses in Tahoe, and some everything they ever worked for.

The gold rush is over. The great retreat is done. People are back in their real jobs, in their home cities. But the core talent remains, and we’re back doing what it is we do.

Goodby, which stayed the course as well as anybody, is doing far better work for HP now than in the salad days of 1999. Chiat won Adidas, then went out and did the “Impossible is nothing” stuff. Butler, Shine & Stern just beat out New York shops Mother and Kirshenbaum for Converse. Riney finally has a new creative leader in Kirk Souder. And my own agency, should I dare to peddle my own wares here in public, has won creative awards for UltimateTV, Napster and HBO. But—and here’s how things are different for creative guys in San Francisco these days—I’m most proud that two of those campaigns earned gold Effies. (We’re still waiting on the third.)

As we push forward, the kind of work San Francisco produces may or may not be the human storytelling Hal Riney invented. It may or may not be work that Goodby and Silverstein describe as “appealing to the highest common denominator.” It may or may not be funny. But I can assure you this: It will be smart, human and relevant. Because that’s what we do here, you know.